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Denair begins transitional kindergarten

07.24.2011 | Modesto Bee | Nan Austin

Kindergarten used to come with naps. The biggest worry of the day was what the cafeteria would serve for lunch. No one flunked.

Fast-forward to today: Kindergartners are expected to learn to sight-read 50 words, write sentences with periods and commas, and do simple addition and subtraction. Not every 5-year-old is ready for rigorous schoolwork. Even fewer 4½-year-olds are.

In Denair, six to eight kindergartners are held back each year, many of them the younger students, said Fawn Oliver, principal of Denair Elementary School.

“We all know those (with) fall birthdays who just aren’t ready for that rigor. Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “On the other hand, you have a parent,” she hesitated, “you know what the economy is,” noting day care and preschool can be a financial burden.

This year, Oliver’s district has a solution, what she calls a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. Denair is the only school in the county, to her knowledge, and one of the few districts statewide to offer transitional kindergarten this year. All districts are supposed to have transitional kindergarten in place for 2012-13, when the cutoff birth date for kindergarten moves from Dec. 2 to Nov. 1. The date will move every year until 2014-15, when children will have to turn 5 by Sept. 1 to enter kindergarten.

“We don’t want to wait,” Oliver said. “We want to do it now and do it right for our students.”

The law mandates the early school program must offer play-based academics and developmental activities — more like what kindergarten used to be.

Which is not to say it’s just play time.

“When a teacher puts puzzles on the table, you need need to know which kids need to work on math and spatial skills. It’s not just a puzzle on a table. Everything is purposeful, meaningful, intentional,” Oliver said.

There are 48 slots, meant for children with birthdays from Sept. 1 to Dec. 2. Some children from other districts have signed up, and switches between the transitional and regular kindergartens will be considered after meeting with parents, she said.

Each class of 18-20 youngsters will have credentialed teachers with a strong child development background and an aide, Oliver said. It will be funded by attendance and is free to families, just like regular kindergarten. Both levels will have the same beginning and dismissal times, the same lunch and play on the same kindergarten-sized equipment.

Her campus is well situated to create a bridge year, she noted, with a state preschool program on site that enabled teachers to collaborate. “We already had that networking. That bridge is very easy for us,” she said.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010 was written by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. Simitian said Palo Alto teachers brought the issue to him, and a kindergarten report card with a space for algebra skills made him sit up and take notice.

In a letter urging then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the bill, he said research showed the “young 5s” were falling behind. “The extra year of growth and development is especially important for low-income and English-learner students who often come to school with less academic preparation,” Simitian wrote.

Research shows that when children are better prepared they get higher test scores and are less likely to need special education services.

“It goes right back to the earlier a child gets those skills. It’s going to benefit the child,” she said.

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